Spinoza, Baruch

Assigned: Spinoza, Baruch. From Theological-Political Treatise, Ch. 7. “Of the Interpretation of Scripture” (314-26). Also read the editors’ introduction (311-14).

From Theological-Political Treatise (1670)

Chapter 7. Of the Interpretation of Scripture

1. On 314-15 (“On every side we hear men saying…”), how does Baruch Spinoza assess the current state of Dutch society and biblical interpretation as he writes his Treatise in the Netherlands in 1670? What motives does he attribute to those who, he says, “make no attempt whatsoever to live according to the Bible’s teachings” (314) but seem enthusiastic in their efforts to expound upon the great text’s meaning? In what several ways do they go wrong as interpreters, and why?

2. On 315-16 (“In order to escape from this scene…”), Spinoza addresses what he believes to be “the true method of Scriptural interpretation,” and lays out as his first principle that “the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting Nature” (315). How, then, does one interpret Nature? What key statement does Spinoza make about where one must find whatever one is looking for with respect to the Scripture? What does he say, as well, about right interpretation of the Bible’s “moral doctrines” (315 bottom) and its “definitions” (316)?

3. On 316-18 (“It should inform us of the nature…”), Spinoza turns to establishing the “kind of study” to be undertaken and what its “chief topics” (316) should be. What three requirements does he list and discuss in this regard? In connection to the second heading, how does Spinoza define “ambiguity,” and what cautionary statement does he offer about “the undue influence, not only of our own prejudices, but of our faculty of reason…” (316)? Why is that precaution so necessary, and how does the discussion of Moses’ sayings “God is fire” and “God is jealous” (317 top) illustrate this necessity? What historical, biographical, and textual-production/reception-based factors does Spinoza refer to as required knowledge for correct interpretation? On what basis does he justify the inclusion of so many factors and details?

4. On 318-19 (“Now when we possess this historical…”), in moving towards interpreting “the prophets and the Holy Spirit” (318), how does Spinoza divide up the most universal doctrines of Scripture, which he refers to as “that which […] forms the basis and foundation of all Scripture” and other, less universal and perpetual matters that nonetheless “affect our daily life” (318)? What key instance of the former does he provide, and what are a few examples of the other, less universal kind? With regard to these latter, what must interpreters take care not to assert, lest they fall into error? How does Spinoza use two sayings by Christ to illustrate the method whereby an interpreter may deal with utterances that are “ambiguous or obscure” (318 bottom) or contradictory in comparison to one another?

5. On 319-21 (“Now up to this point we have…”), how, according to Spinoza, should an interpreter deal with the Bible’s passages when they are not about ethics but instead “belong only to the field of philosophical speculation” (320)? What sequence of steps should be taken in this regard? What “great caution” (320 middle) should an interpreter also take while interpreting difficult “philosophical” passages by the “prophets and historians”? Finally, why, according to Spinoza, should a careful interpreter reject certain claims to a “sure tradition” (320) by the Pharisees and by the Catholic Church regarding the Pope’s infallibility in reading Scripture, and trust instead to the close appreciation of the Hebrew language itself?

6. On 321-23 (“At this point I have to discuss…”), what “difficulties and shortcomings” (321) in his method of interpreting Scripture in its own light does Spinoza discuss? Aside from the fact that the ancient Hebrews left no grammars or dictionaries for a modern interpreter to rely on, what are the two most important difficulties that must be reckoned with? Why, in particular, should an interpreter not rely on the “accents and points” (321; i.e., “vowels and accents”) or punctuation that has been provided by later scribes and interpreters of Hebrew Scripture?

7. On 323-24 (“To return to our theme…”), what “further difficulties” (323), according to Spinoza, beset the interpretation of Scripture by the method he has set forth? Since the first-mentioned difficulty has to do with the historical status of the biblical books, how does he propose to deal with the undeniable problem confronting an interpreter in this line of inquiry? Why is “some knowledge of the authors” vital if one is to gain access to the meaning of “obscure or incomprehensible writings” (324)?

8. On 324-25 (“Such then, is a full account…”), now that he has finished owning up to the difficulties that lie in the way of correct and full biblical interpretation, what attitude does Spinoza adopt with regard to the main benefits of engaging in the interpretation of the Scriptures? What forms the basis of his optimism, and why is it unnecessary “to be unduly anxious” (325) about our inability to understand the most abstruse material in the Bible?

9. On 325-26 (“I consider that I have now displayed…”), how does Spinoza sum up his approach to the interpretation of Scripture, and again affirm his optimism in spite of his method’s inability to solve all problems of interpretation? Finally, how does he handle the objections of those who insist, contrary to his own firm view, that “the natural light of reason does not have the power to interpret Scripture” (326)?

10. General question: in our selection from the Theological-Political Treatise (1670), Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza explains how he believes the Scriptures may with some degree of confidence be rightly interpreted by modern scholars and readers. Although Spinoza was respected by many intellectuals in his time and today, his strikingly independent thoughts on many issues also got him expelled from his own Portuguese-Jewish community in the Netherlands and condemned by prominent Christian officials. Find a good internet site and set down the basics of Spinoza’s life and the troubles to which his philosophy made him subject. On the whole, how did being a philosopher shape the life of Baruch Spinoza?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake